The “brown question”



Brown people do not form a homogeneous group, reducible to a single origin, as so many people seem to want.

According to data from the 2022 population census, promoted by IBGE, Brazil's demographic profile has changed significantly in the last decade. Perhaps the most significant change concerns the percentage of the population that calls itself “brown”, which surpassed, for the first time, the number of self-declared “white” people in the Census. This is a fact that raises, first of all, a delicate question: who, after all, are these “brown people”?

The answer to this question is confused with Brazil's own ontology. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a single fully satisfactory answer. The truth is that brown people do not form a homogeneous group, reducible to a single origin, as so many seem to want. Thus, unless we think, for example, based on the Deleuzian formula pluralism = monism, the notion that the demographic hegemony of brown people would have a necessarily homogenizing and beneficial effect on Brazil is spurious.

According to the black movement, the Racial Equality Statute and, increasingly, common sense, the brown person would be nothing more than a “light-skinned black person”, and “negro”, historically synonymous with “black”, became to be a hypernym, the sum of the black and brown populations. In the words of philosopher Sueli Carneiro, “The black movement established that black is equal to the sum of black plus brown. My generation did this political engineering, and we said: everything that is said there that is brown and black, for us is black” (Hand to hand). It is, therefore, a political choice, not a definitive interpretative key to the Brazilian reality.

The objective of this reductionist “political engineering” is noble: the creation of a large demographic-electoral bloc to advance progressive agendas, particularly the anti-racist struggle. Every bold political maneuver, however, has its side effects, which here involve the forced and arbitrary conceptual simplification of an extremely complex reality. Against this, another political-identity trend arises: the Brazilian Brown-Mestizo Movement (MPMB), whose non-reductionist stance can be considered a kind of “brown-mestizo realism”, so to speak.

A priori, considering brownness as an autonomous category is not necessarily a bad idea. After all, the story is not over, as Francis Fukuyama wanted. It will only end when we are all dead, and until then, processes of ethnogenesis will continue to occur as they have been for tens of thousands of years. The political activities of the Brazilian Brown-Mestizo Movement, however, tend to be a bad joke. Unfortunately, his political affinities with former president Jair Bolsonaro are unequivocal. At the CPI of NGOs, the current president of the MPMB criticized the results of the 2022 Population Census and stated that the official statistics regarding the deaths of indigenous people in Amazonas during the Covid-19 pandemic were due to the opportunistic reclassification of brown people as indigenous (Mingote , 2023).

It is difficult to know whether the Brazilian Brown-Mestizo Movement intends to be a serious social movement, with a sincere conviction of its own agenda, or just a detractor of the agendas of other social movements. It is as difficult as theorizing miscegenation in Brazil without falling into some kind of Freyrianism. Be that as it may, the very existence of the Brazilian Brown-Mestizo Movement highlights the impossibility of applying an absolutizing reductionism to the brown category, which sometimes does not even concern any mestizaje.

In fact, the history of this term is old and complex. As early as 1500, Pero Vaz de Caminha referred to the Tupi on the coast as “pardos” (Caminha, 1500, p. 2). Throughout the colonial period, people of indigenous descent were commonly considered “brown”, along, of course, with those of African descent (Chaves de Resende, 2003, pp. 141-210). Thus, the term appears as a kind of general catch-all for anyone who is not “white”, or as a substitute for all those colonial ethnotaxonomic terms (eg “mameluco”, “mulatto”, “cafuzo” etc.), perhaps an analogue to the half Blood of the Hispanic world.

The IBGE itself, contrary to the Statute of Racial Equality, has a pluralistic and less reductionist understanding of the category: “for the person who declares themselves mixed race or who identifies as a mixture of two or more color or race options, including white, black , brown and indigenous” (IBGE, 2023, p. 21). It is not surprising that the IBGE and the National Statute of Racial Equality disagree in this sense, considering the strongly descriptive (and not normative, as with the Statute) purpose of this body, whose data are based on self-declarations by individuals who present conceptions diverse.

It is very practical, for official statistical purposes, to treat this heterogeneous category as a single block separate from the others. Using Deleuzian terms again, the Census categories are molar, making it incapable of capturing the molecular nature of parditude. In the end, any and all racial identities are, by definition, a straitjacket, a kind of (un)useful fiction, an ephemeral clot in the incessant flow of human genetic material over the centuries and millennia. Strictly speaking, parditude is the universal condition.

Based on the imperfect premise of the IBGE, parditude cannot be understood by looking only at the African component of Brazilian genetic heritage. A more holistic approach is needed. A good start would be to look at another of the Census categories, which also showed impressive numbers: the indigenous population. In the last decade, the population of self-declared indigenous people in Brazil has multiplied approximately twofold. This is prodigious growth, the exact opposite of what the safeguarding anthropologists of the last two centuries feared. This is not only due to the vegetative growth of this population, but also to the fact that many Brazilians have been (re)discovering themselves as indigenous people.

It is tempting to conceive of Brazil as a kind of United States of South America. Both are large countries, formed by the not always peaceful (to say the least) confluence of countless peoples. We are both, moreover, quite different from our neighbors. At least that's what we like to believe. After all, Bolivians, Peruvians, Guatemalans and Mexicans are all a bunch of “Indians”, and we don’t want to be like them. This was the type of narrative that historically led Brazil to position itself against Hispanic America, for example, supporting the annexation of the northern provinces of Mexico by the United States.

Even today, this notion is one of the main reasons for our relatively low level of integration in the neighborhood. But not only that. The historical, geographic, linguistic and (more relevant for the purposes of this text) demographic parallels between Brazil and the USA, whether real or imaginary, make our country particularly susceptible to the uncritical import of any and all doctrines granted by the intelligentsia american.

This issue is not so serious, say, in Bolivia or Mexico, as there is something in these countries that unequivocally differentiates them from the USA: culturally and demographically very expressive indigenous people. In Brazil, indigenous identity has always been subject to intense policing and standardization, a trend that peaked during the military regime (Viveiros de Castro, 2006, p. 4). One of the results of this, to the joy of both landowners and social engineers from distant lands, was the dilapidation of the Brazilian indigeneity. Judging by IBGE data, however, this appears to be changing. If the Brazilian indigenous population doubled in the last decade, it would not be surprising if, within this century, it reached at least ten times its current size, fueled largely by identity recovery.

This is yet another problem with the monist reduction of pardo to “light-skinned black”: among other things, the category in question serves to withhold a huge contingent of (dis)acculturated indigenous people in Brazil. Let it be very clear, however, that this is not a competition. After all, blackness and Indianness are not exclusive. A visit to the Northeast is enough to find Afro-indigenous populations, such as the Tapeba of Ceará or the Afro-Tremembé fishermen of the coast of Piauí. Thus, just as it did not necessarily presuppose miscegenation, as we have already seen, parditude also does not presuppose whitening, contrary to the fears of some, as “white” is often not even included in the equation.

Therefore, it is clear that any and all attempts at a generalizing explanation of parditude are doomed to failure. Perhaps the best theorization of “brown” as a category sui generis continue to be the nobody by Darcy Ribeiro (2006, p. 119), precisely because of its non-essentialist character. In fact, if there's one thing we know about Brazil, it's that the perception of identity of around half the population is usually at the mercy of convenience, the goodwill of others, ambient lighting or the amount of sun they got on vacation.

*Eberval Gadelha Figueiredo Jr. Bachelor's Degree in Law from USP.


IBGE. 2022 Demographic Census: Ethnic-racial identification of the population, by sex and age. 2023. Available at:

CAMINHA, Pêro Vaz de. Letter to King D. Manuel about the discovery of Brazil. 1500 Available at: (accessed January 15, 2024).

CHAVES DE RESENDE, Maria Leônia. Brazilian Gentiles: Colonial Indians in 2003th Century Minas Gerais. XNUMX. Campinas: Available in:

HAND TO HAND. Sueli Carneiro. [Voiceover by]: Mano Brown. Interviewed: Sueli Carneiro. Spotify studios, May 2022. Podcast. Available in:

MINGOTE, Bianca. Rádio Senado: President of the Pardo-Mestiço Movement criticizes results of the 2022 Census in the CPI of NGOs. 2023. Available at:

RIBEIRO, Darcy. The Brazilian People: the formation and meaning of Brazil🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2006.

VIVEIROS DE CASTRO, Eduardo. Indigenous Peoples in Brazil: “In Brazil, everyone is Indian, except those who are not”. 2006. Available at:é_%C3%ADndio.pdf

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